Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

M is for Motivation

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 06•12

So here’s what you do: take your memories and present them to the reader. Take your passions. You take as much guilt and as little total depravity as you can safely mix in. You read. You steal. You want desperately to be a writer. You volunteer to nail your soft parts to a tree. You soak up everything. You take notes. You retire to your garret or your study or your office and you tie yourself to the chair with the belt of your bathrobe. And you write. You slowly go crazy, but you write. You drink lye, if that is what it will take, and you remember the nights and caves in Granada. Because you desperately want to be a writer. You do. You write. You write. And you write.  ~ Bill Brashler, The Total Writer

 Like some of you, I don’t really like to sit down to write all the time. As a famous wag once said he enjoyed having written more than writing. In fact, some days I detest it.  I avoid it by eating, reading, emptying the dishwasher, answering e-mails, pulling dead leaves off my plants, chatting on the phone—in fact, my list of avoidance tactics is too long to enumerate here. However, like you, I also love to write and some of my most contented moments come while I’m writing. It’s a kick. It makes me feel alive and passionate. It forces me to analyze my ideas and improve my craft. It also makes me feel comforted and safe and like I’ve found a home within myself and also a home within this vast, spinning world. Like you, I also know that I’m called to writing. Because when I don’t write, my life is flat. When I don’t write, I feel nervous, empty and unfulfilled.

So the writer who hates to write and the writer who enjoys the process, lives within me, as I suspect he or she lives within most of you. I work at understanding where my strengths and weaknesses lie, and I suggest you start there too. In my first book Writing out the Storm I wrote that we begin writing by first knowing ourselves a little better. And I still believe in that advice.

It’s important to know what kind of writer you are, and then to find ways to capitalize on your strengths and override your weaknesses. For example, I’m an idea person. I’ve got ideas for at least five nonfiction books, a few screenplays and about a dozen essays bouncing around within me. My problems are managing my time, fleshing out ideas, completing and marketing them.  Some of you might struggle with WHAT to write. You don’t know if you should write nonfiction, essays or fiction, so you drift and your dreams fizzle. Some people struggle with structure–they cannot shape their vague ideas into a format, a plot line, a screenplay, or an essay; so they never try. Some writers get stuck because they don’t have faith in their basic skills such as grammar, style, and spelling. Some writers don’t know how to begin. They have an idea for a novel, but have no concept about how to flesh it out.

Start with where you are now

Start with your where you are now and if you have a lack to be overcome, make concrete plans to fill in the gaps. If you want to write fiction, but need more information about structure, then research every source you can find on the subject. After you’ve read the advice, taken notes, and analyzed your favorite novels, apply what you’ve learned, then practice the exercises here.  BEFORE you write your novel. A lot of us read books on technique, but we don’t practice or experiment based on what we learn. Your brain will not file, store and process new information without practice. It takes action–the muscles of the hand connecting with the idea to improve your voice, style or how you shape a story.

Face your fears

Next, face your fears. There is no such thing as writer’s block, but fear wears many disguises in order to keep us from writing. Some of us worry that we’re not REAL writers; we’re frauds and if we try, eventually we’ll be discovered. Some of us are afraid we’ll never get published, so why bother? Some of us fear that we don’t have enough to say. Some of us worry that our writing will offend our family. Some of us are afraid that we don’t have the discipline to accomplish our goals. I could go on and on with this tragic list, but that’s not my point here. I mention these fears because I’m sure that your particular monster is a big factor in why you’re not writing regularly. Stand up to your fears and understand that we all afraid of some aspect of this process.

But the first kind of fear that you need to acknowledge and then wrestle with, is anxiety. Most writers experience some form of anxiety when they sit down to write. For most of us, the first 15-30 minutes of writing are the worst− we’re nervous, restless and unfocused. This is a common occurrence and you’ve got to find a way to outsmart your anxiety. Set an alarm, or promise yourself a chocolate after you’ve written for half an hour. Play soothing or upbeat music. I begin a writing session by lightly editing the section I’ve worked on the previous day. I’m usually so engrossed with tweaking sentences, trimming flab from my paragraphs and searching for perfect verbs to replace wimpy ones, that I forget my anxiety. Before I know it, my twitchiness has diminished and I’m engrossed in the process. Another trick is to end each writing session at a place where you know what’s going to happen next so that it’s easy to slip into the flow when you begin again.

I believe that many beginning writers imagine that published writers succeed because they’ve somehow overcome their anxieties and fears. This is simply not true. Although the pros might still be plagued with nerves or writing-induced neurosis, they write anyway. Then, with knees quaking, he or she mails a manuscript off to a publisher. It means that even if the pro is still haunted, worried and stressed, these demons do not paralyze him or her.  They keep going despite these uncomfortable feelings. There is no big secret here.

Anxious writers are everywhere

There have been many successful, yet anxious writers: Raymond Carver, Joan Didion, Raymond Chandler, and Frederick Exeley, to name a few. But they used their fears to lend the writing intensity. James Cain said that if the writing doesn’t keep the writer up at night, it won’t keep the reader up either.

However, perhaps one aspect that experienced writers work at is not feeling vulnerable about their writing. When I was the writing coach at iVillage.com, not a day passed without a member posting at a message board or admitting during our live classes that she was afraid to post her work because she was terrified of criticism. I believe that some writers mistakenly assume that THEY, not their WORK are being evaluated. Your writing is the sum of your skills TODAY. Next month or next year your skills will likely be honed jewels, while now they’re more like clay or some other raw element.

The other thing I’ve noticed over the years, but was especially made aware of when working as an on-line writing coach, was that many writers mistakenly believe that praise and adoration makes us a better writer. Now I’m all for encouraging writers. BUT we learn best from writers who are more skilled than us, who will take the time to TACTFULLY make recommendations and point out our failures. We cannot fix our mistakes until we see them and for most of us, at least in the beginning stages of writing, this sometimes requires another person’s perceptions and discernment.

Years ago I wrote articles for a community newspaper where the editor was a friend of mine. She returned her edited drafts of my articles and those startling red marks, lines, arrows, deletions taught me more than many semesters of sitting in a journalism class. Of course I was alarmed, even horrified the first time I saw all that red ink. But her editing notes were amazingly enlightening and I’m still grateful to her. Now that I’m in the editor’s chair, I only hope that my marks and comments can be nearly as helpful.

Another fact that is inescapable is simply this: the nature of this business is that you send your words out into the world for others to scrutinize. If it’s published, the critics, your uncle, your ex-boyfriend, your sister who was always jealous of your successes and your high school English teacher might make judgments or possibly tear apart what you wrote. There are two issues here. One, they’ll judge the quality of the work. Two, they’ll judge the content and how it reflects on the person who wrote it. Readers might assume that if your character hates children or sex or cats or Brussels sprouts, that you do too.  Or if the father in the short story is vicious and violent, that your father must have been a horror also.

 Safety zones

Chances are that there are specific people who you are most afraid to show your work. When I was a kid, I made the mistake of showing my parents my writing, mostly poems. Their reactions were far from positive, so as an adult, I was still wary of my family’s reactions to my work. So, living two thousand miles from my hometown, I started sending my writing to them. At first it was an essay about Christmas that was broadcast on Public Radio, then an essay about the Green Bay Packers that had been published in a daily newspaper, in other words, safe subjects. I never asked them what they thought about my essays, but somehow the act of mailing them killed a phantom and put right a long-held hurt

I also discovered that while I am afraid of publishers, editors and other big bad wolves; that the person I’m most afraid of is myself. I’m never completely happy with what I write. It’s never good enough, even if I’m reading it in front of a sold-out room. I can spot every weak verb or tangled metaphor AS I read my words. I’m working to silence my inner critic every time I write and I want to suggest that you face that obnoxious force too.

I often laughingly describe my theories about writing to my students explaining that while the process of writing can be difficult; finishing and evaluating your efforts is harder yet. I’ve compared reading my finished manuscripts to giving birth to an ugly baby. So it is that likely YOU are your harshest critic, the one who labels your completed works ugly. You must face the fact that your writing will never be perfect; will never be as grand or polished as the story that lives in your head. Forgive yourself for being human; have compassion for yourself and your attempts; and keep going.

Write what must be written

So how do you stay motivated in this midst of this turmoil? The answers sound simple, but of course it’s fraught with dangers: Show your work to someone you trust in order to conquer your vulnerabilities. And no matter how vulnerable you feel, write about what calls to you—what MUST be written. If you want to write about a character who hates men or women or gays, do it. If you are called to write about secrets such as, incest, bulimia, addiction, or suicide, do it. The truth is that the most embarrassing, gruesome and hidden topics are often the most interesting. In workshops sometimes I notice that students write around the truth, taking their piece to a certain level, expose only a bit of themselves because they’re afraid what other students will think of them.  Half-formed or evasive writing is not the answer. Clarity, honesty and mining the depths of our emotions will bring reactions from readers and also earn self-respect.

So write with honesty, but not from a bitter or vengeful heart. Instead write with compassion and if possible, some distance.  And then rehearse answers so that when your readers or critics ask probing questions you can sound glib and assured.

Or write under a pseudonym.

All writers are vulnerable, since our words are always naked out in the world without us. But if your motives are pure—even if you’re writing to understand yourself and your past—and your approach is balanced, and your work is polished and original, some day, someone will buy your honest words. No matter what they cost you.

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